closing in

'Safety net' deal on teacher evaluations protects against negative consequences

Updated 4:45 p.m. — Teachers won’t face negative consequences for the next two years if they flunk their annual evaluations because of Common Core-aligned state tests, according to a tentative deal reached today between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature.

The deal will create a “safety net” that essentially offers a second chance to teachers who received an “ineffective” or “developing” rating on account of student scores on the new grades 3-8 English and math tests. The new system will allow teachers to have their evaluations recalculated without the state test score component for personnel decisions like termination.

The safety net will be available this school year and the 2014-15 year. State education officials said it would affect about 1,000 teachers statewide, or less than 1 percent of all teachers.

If passed, as is expected to happen as early as tonight, the bill would bring New York into line with how other states are using Common Core test scores. More than 40 states have adopted the standards, but New York had alone in seeking to simultaneously roll out teacher evaluations along with new tests.

That stance has long drawn criticism, even from staunch supporters of the Common Core and of measuring teacher quality. Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called for states to delay using tests in evaluations until after teachers were more familiar with the standards — a move that was widely viewed as putting pressure on New York.

“Just about every state I know of is realizing that doing these things at the same time is very difficult,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Partners who supports new evaluation systems.

Lawmakers made teacher evaluations a top priority as the legislative session drew to a close this month. But the issue has been a longstanding concern for the state teachers union, which first called for a “moratorium” on consequences tied to the Common Core more than a year ago.

The union’s concern mostly focused on the impact that the state’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards would have on teachers, students and schools. The state had already moved to lower the stakes for students and schools, but had resisted calls to do the same for teachers.

NYSUT praised the deal as a “delay on consequences” and President Karen Magee said in an interview that the protections for teachers are what the union had wanted from the start.

“It’s fair for teachers,” Magee said.

Under the provisions, a teacher could still technically be fired because of repeated low ratings. But such a decision would have to reflect ratings based on locally developed student growth measures and a principal observation — not on state test scores.

Officials in Cuomo’s office disputed the idea of a “delay,” arguing that all teachers would be evaluated according to the original rules. They also emphasized that teachers’ original ratings would still be available to parents whose children are in their classes.

The changes are nonetheless seen as a blow to Cuomo, who has said New York’s implementation of teacher evaluations was a signature achievement of his first term in office. But in recent months he began to concede that the Common Core’s rollout had been rushed and signaled that he would be open to some changes.

At a press conference on Thursday, Cuomo said New York’s “teacher evaluation system is moving forward” but acknowledged a need to protect against the possibility of unfair punishment.

In New York City, the provisions will be in place for the first two school years that teachers are working under the new evaluation system. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who last year joined the NYSUT’s call for a moratorium, applauded the deal.

“Everyone recognizes that the Common Core, while the right direction for education, had a terrible rollout,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

The deal was not universally supported, however. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said state tests are as reliable an indicator of student learning as exists and that there should be a way to fire teachers whose students don’t show growth.

“School districts need the ability to remove ineffective teachers and it’s impossible to run quality schools with zero consequences and jobs for life irrespective of how children learn,” Sedlis said.

The bill brings to a close a fourth legislative session in which changing the state’s teacher evaluation law, first enacted in 2010, played a starring role. The constantly shifting waters have some observers questioning how much longer the evaluation system in its current form will have credibility with stakeholders.

“I think it’s another barrier to the public seeing the evaluation system as legitimate when it has to be tinkered with every year,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Here is the text of the bill and the bill’s summary.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”